The World Expo that will begin in Shanghai in May has attracted displays from 242 nations, each looking to expand their international profile. The UAE will be among those represented and its desert-themed pavilion is expected to be a highlight of the show, writes Clifford Coonan Expo fever has gripped Shanghai as China's financial capital gears up for the event billed as the "Economic Olympics", the World Expo set to open there next year.
Taking the theme "Better City, Better Life", the exposition is expected to give business in Shanghai a major boost by drawing more than 70 million visitors, about half of them from outside China, during its six-month run from May 1. A probable highlight of the event will be the UAE pavilion, designed by the noted architect Sir Norman Foster, an elegant yet spectacular building which will resemble two giant sand dunes.
Though at present it looks more like two giant snow drifts as the roof pieces are covered in protective coating, the finished product will be sand coloured with reddish shadings, says Michael Liu, the senior exposition project manager who is overseeing the UAE project. The pavilion will embody the "Eiffel Tower effect", referring to the Paris landmark gracing the exposition in the French capital in 1889 that is practically France's symbol.
"The construction was a challenge, but that's what Expo is all about," says Mr Liu as he excitedly points out the building's features. "There will be no supporting columns inside, the support will come from the structure itself. It's like a shell. "All nodes are dismantleable and can be reinstalled in the UAE. Everything is numbered so it can be reassembled." The focus was on keeping welding to a minimum.
The National Media Council said in October that it reached an agreement with the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) to bring the pavilion to the UAE at the end of the event. The organisers are upbeat on the prospects for the Expo, which is on track to be the biggest world fair ever despite the worst recession since the Great Depression. "The participation of 242 countries and international organisations has made the Expo unprecedented in scale," said Yang Xiong, the deputy director of the Expo executive committee and a vice mayor of Shanghai.
The organisers say everything is on schedule. City authorities expect local GDP to expand by about 3 per cent next year because of the Expo effect. Though the international financial crisis certainly had an impact on the timing of funding for the event, most potential exhibitors stayed on board, even Iceland, which faced economic collapse earlier this year. "The general message to those humming and hawing about whether or not to take part in the face of tighter funding was 'if Iceland can do it, so can you'," says one source close to the organisers.
It also nearly meant that the US might not have had a pavilion. One of the biggest stories of the Expo so far, and one that could have proven potentially embarrassing both for organisers and the US itself, was the delay in securing funding for its pavilion. The US is not allowed to provide public funds for the Expo and the shortfall in the US$61 million (Dh224mn) needed was being made up by private sponsors, including companies with major China interests such as General Motors, Honeywell, Intel and Boeing.
"I know there are some audiences still contemplating sponsorship and maybe in negotiation with the US pavilion team. Now it's the time to join this effort," said Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, last month during a visit to the Expo site. "We want to assemble the strongest team of partners possible." With less than six months to go, construction is under way on all the sites, although some appear to be going more slowly than others to the untrained eye. However, the Olympic Games construction project in Beijing has taught observers to believe the Chinese when they say something will be ready on time.
Preparations are going on everywhere in the city. Along the elevated expressways and busy shopping thoroughfares of China's biggest city, painting work and renovation goes on at a frantic pace behind vast scaffolding. There are also efforts to make sure that everyone puts on a polite public face for the event. Campaigns are under way to stop spitting and discourage local residents from walking the streets wearing pyjamas while visitors are in town. It resembles the Beijing Olympics all over again, even down to efforts to improve the quality of the English language used on road signs.
The Expo will cost about 1 billion yuan (Dh538m) to stage, say city planners who believe that any losses will be offset by an increase in the city's GDP in coming years, as well as increased income from tourism and hotels. Huang Yaocheng, a leading Expo adviser, wrote on the event website that he expects Shanghai's GDP to rise about 6.5 per cent as a result of the event, more than double the city officials' prediction. He said the most important goal for holding the Expo was to push forward the process of urbanisation.
To get to the Expo site, you drive to the west of the city for about half an hour from downtown Shanghai. The event is located on both sides of the Huangpu river, though the biggest section will be on the Pudong side, an urban area which only 20 years ago was largely marshland and is now home to Shanghai's futuristic skyline. Tens of thousands of people were relocated to make way for the Expo site.
Construction work is progressing at a furious pace at the site, which is spread over 5km. Of the 242 countries taking part, 42 are building their own pavilions. Others are either joining with regional partners in giant halls representing continents, including many African or Latin American lands, or renting prefabricated kit pavilions. Twenty-six of the 42 self-built pavilions have already been completed, while 37 out the 42 rented pavilions were already finished, local media have reported. All 11 joint pavilions have been completed.
Unsurprisingly, the first thing you see as you approach the site is the Chinese pavilion, a vast edifice dominating the skyline that is one of five permanent structures which will remain after the Expo ends. Others include the Performance Centre, Expo Centre Theme Pavilion and Expo Boulevard. Their construction will be completed by the end of this month. Most of the pavilions will be disassembled with many of them sold to be used again in their home countries, such as the UAE structure.
As well as providing an international platform, the Expo is important for China as an opportunity to showcase its advances, particularly in areas such as scientific and technological innovation, where the perception holds that it lags the rest of the world. Some developing countries that had difficulty getting funding together are being helped out by the organisers. The Expo committee is leaving nothing to chance.
The event's lineage can be traced to the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations held at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. The event has provided some of the world's great landmarks over its history. While the Expo has its critics as a waste of money, its defenders point out it has an important cultural importance and can say a lot about how host countries want to present themselves. Spain held the Expo and the Olympics in 1992 and used both to show it had become a modern, democratic EU member after years of Fascist rule.
Still, such debates hold very little water in China, where large-scale public events are backed with wild enthusiasm by the local population, who are delighted to have the attention on their city and pleased for another opportunity to showcase China's recent renaissance. Back on what must be the world's biggest current building site, Mr Liu is confident that the UAE building will be a triumph. "The schedule was a big challenge, too, as there is a fixed deadline," he says. "There are still some challenges left. For example, as you can see, it's a different shape from a normal building. This is going to be one of the most beautiful and spectacular buildings in the whole Expo."